“This Essential Beverage”

In 1951, the military began a modernization program for their purchasing and acquisition systems, as part of a process of streamlining – and unifying – military purchasing. The idea was to save the government money, by creating a more standardized purchasing process which would, in part, be able to better leverage the combined purchasing might of the various military branches.

You might think that sounds dreadfully boring, and you’re mostly right. However, the program is of more than purely historical interest today because the first item the military examined – in unbelievable depth, I might add – was the single military-issue comestible not indigenous to the United States – coffee.

How important was coffee? Here’s Uncle Sam:

The military bought one hundred million dollars of coffee in fiscal-year 1951. That’s almost eight hundred million bucks in today’s dollars. They went through eight and a half million pounds of coffee per month. That’s a lot of coffee, but remember, the military had several times more personnel back then than it does today.

Like any other “essential” military supply, the government made a special effort to stockpile several months’ supply, in case circumstances interrupted supply channels. After all, nobody wanted to imagine what would happen if the Army ran out of coffee…

Something worth remembering is that the military didn’t just supply coffee in messes, but was also the source of coffee sold in exchanges. Again, this was done principally to ensure an uninterrupted supply.

It’s easy to think of military coffee as being low-quality and downright horrible, but I think that’s a little unfair. The military had, in 1951, a fairly decent set of standards for their coffee:

The standard at the time was a blend of 70 percent mid-grade Brazilian beans, and 30 percent mid-grade Colombian, in a medium roast. This produced, the military was quick to point out, a “good” coffee comparable to the major commercial coffee blends of the day. Quality, though, was not the primary criteria in developing this standard, but supply:

And the military did have some pretty strongly-worded opinions on coffee quality and age:

They even had charts and graphs supporting their positions:

The military’s only shortcoming, as near as I can find, is that they believed in a sort of stronger-is-better philosophy where coffee was concerned. I know, surprise, right? Well, they reckoned, at one point, that a pound of roasted coffee should produce around a dozen ten-cup pots of coffee. So, if you’d like an authentic, 1950s military coffee experience, there’s the trick: seventy percent Brazilian, thirty percent Colombian, medium roast, about one-and-a-third ounces of coffee per ten-cup pot. As my roommate commented, that’ll give you something less like “coffee”, and more like “weak espresso”…

The military’s coffee was apparently mid-grade, but if you wanted premium coffee back in the day, the VA office was the place to go; their standard in 1951 was thirty percent high-grade Colombian, seventy percent high-grade Brazilian.

However, when you next stop in at your coffee shop of choice, raise a glass in memory of the many, many government employees outside the military, who had to suffer through years of the General Service Administration’s idea of “good coffee” – after a straight coffee of mid-grade Brazilian beans:

…they switched to a blend of low- and mid-grade Brazilians several steps in quality below what even the Army was serving at the time.

Today – I think – all the military’s roasted and ground coffee is sourced commercially from third parties, but in 1951, the military cut out the middlemen – they purchased green beans overseas, imported them, warehoused them, and roasted them at a half-dozen government-owned roasting facilities around the country. It’s just one of the many ways the military used to be self-sufficient, but no longer is.

Anyway, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, you can download the 1951 report here (7.7MB PDF!), and learn more than you ever wanted to know about the mysteries of coffee…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on January 30th, 2009| No Comments »

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